As children, we start off at the center of our own universe, where we interpret everything that happens from an egocentric vantage point. If our parents or grandparents keep telling us we’re the cutest, most delicious thing in the world, we don’t question their judgment—we must be exactly that. And deep down, no matter what else we learn about ourselves, we will carry that sense with us: that we are basically adorable. As a result, if we later hook up with somebody who treats us badly, we will be outraged. It won’t feel right: It’s not familiar; it’s not like home. But if we are abused or ignored in childhood, or grow up in a family where sexuality is treated with disgust, our inner map contains a different message. Our sense of our self is marked by contempt and humiliation, and we are more likely to think “he (or she) has my number” and fail to protest if we are mistreated (The Body Keeps the Score, p. 127).
Have you seen Jay Smooth’s talk on talking about race? He helps us stay in it when we’re on the receiving end of a “that thing you said/did seemed racist” conversation. The title of this post will make sense once you watch it. I watched it with my spiritual community (well, one of them) yesterday. That experience yesterday motivated me to finally finish this post I’ve been sitting on since Charlottesville.
As I watched the VICE news segment on the protests in Charlottesville and our president’s commentary from the Tuesday following and realized that explicit, extreme racism is picking up steam on its path to re-normalization within the U.S., I was taken back to a training I participated in about two months ago. Of course I want to decry the neo-nazis, the white nationalists, the white supremacists, and anyone who went to Charlottesville with the intention of committing violence. But that’s easy, and I regret that we seem to be approaching a day when that becomes controversial. I left that training earlier this summer wanting to acknowledge my collusion in racism and white supremacy, and to recommit to working to dismantle racism and other kinds of oppression whenever and wherever I can, beginning within myself.
One of many transformational experiences from that training came while sitting in a circle of supportive white folks. One of the ways we supported each other in “white caucus” was by acknowledging our own racist attitudes and behaviors, and relating to each other, admitting when we’ve thought, done or said similar things. I want to share some of what came up in me and what I related to during that time. The examples that became seeds for this discussion came from a list developed by Dr. Kathy Obear.
When trying to help people of color, I’ve felt annoyed if they haven’t enthusiastically appreciated the help.
I have sought approval, validation, and recognition from people of color.
I have failed to notice the daily indignities faced by people of color, and when I have noticed them, I have sometimes tried to explain them away with Perfectly Logical Explanations.
I have accepted and felt more comfortable around people of color who have assimilated and are “closer to white.”
I have focused on my good intent as a white person and downplayed or ignored the negative impact of my behavior.
When confronted by a person of color, I’ve viewed it as an attack and focused on how they engaged with me rather than on my original words and behaviors.
I have resented taking direction from a person of color.
I have been afraid of getting called out as racist.
I have exaggerated my level of intimacy with people of color.
I have failed to interrupt racism happening to people of color in my presence.
I have rephrased the comments of people of color.
I have approached other white change agents from a starting point of mistrust and criticism.
I have minimized, ignored and discounted the talents, competencies, and contributions of people of color.
I have assumed that the white teacher/coach/facilitator/employee, etc. is in charge and that people of color are in supporting or service roles.
I have judged a person of color as overreacting and too emotional when they are responding to the cumulative impact of racist incidents (of which I’ve been a part).
I have competed with other whites to be “the good white:” the best ally, the one people of color let into their circle, etc.
When confronted by a person of color, I’ve shut down and focused on what to avoid doing or saying in the future rather than reflecting on my own socialization and unconscious bias that led to my behavior.
I’ve disengaged when I start to feel discomfort.
I felt freedom in that circle, admitting that we white folks who consider ourselves agents for social justice still contribute to racism. I feel that I am more effective as a change agent now that I’m no longer afraid of being found out as a racist. I can simply admit that yes, I am racist. I have been (and continue to be) socialized as a white person in the United States. Unlearning that socialization and replacing it with a practical vision of unity amidst diversity within a beloved community will be the work of a lifetime. I can simply apologize, and reflect on my beliefs and behavior. I can also remember that a person of color may not be reacting only to me, but to a litany of micro and macro aggressions, of which I have become a part. Recognizing this helps reduce my defensiveness and helps me have the compassion necessary to avoid causing more harm as I seek to make things right.
If you’d like to use Dr. Kathy Obear’s list to reflect on our own attitudes and behaviors, you can find it here.
I’ve reflected a bit on how I’ve been racist. In the next post I’d like to reflect on the ways that I prop up white supremacy culture.
As has become my tradition during MLK week each year, I have once again read Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. This time I also read the letter from the white Alabama clergymen that prompted it. It’s unfortunate how relevant this exchange still is today. Here is what I want to reflect on after reading it this year:
- In what ways does American society today resemble that of April 1963?
- In what ways do I think and act like the white “law and order” clergyman? Have I ever been bothered by “outsiders” pointing out how I and my community still engage in racist practices? How does this attitude inhibit the work of racial reconciliation and justice?
- In what ways do I think like Dr. King and others who engaged in civil disobedience? How have I felt about the direct actions in which I have participated?
- What promises have I, my community, my institutions or the governments that represent me made to marginalized people that we have not kept?
- What laws am I currently bound by that I feel are immoral or unjust?
- Have I implicitly or explicitly encouraged marginalized folks to wait or be patient as they push for equal rights?
- What will it take to convince the white moderates Dr. King describes that a positive peace is much preferable to a negative peace and that it’s worth actively pursuing?
- What racial tensions already exist under the surface in my community? How can they be brought into the light so the healing process can begin?
- Which religious traditions and congregations in my community are actively working for the full and equal participation of ALL people in society without exceptions or qualifications? Which non-religious groups are?
- Given my talents, relationships, roles, and constraints, how can I best support these efforts? (How can I be a “creative extremist” for love?)
I have a hunch that growing in consciousness or maturing in faith is going to involve deepening appreciation for the wisdom of mature adherents of every faith tradition. This brings me joy because it feels like a path beyond tolerance, beyond acceptance, to celebration and unity.
Last week Maggie Escobedo-Steele told me some wisdom she heard from a man who is a keeper of three thousand years of oral history. He said that we are the fifth race of humans, in which people of every culture can come into contact with each other. We’re the ones who will decide whether there will be a sixth race. I imagine the sixth race being characterized by mutual understanding, celebration and cooperation.
Wouldn’t that be awesome? In my life I’ve encountered what feels like two fundamental religious impulses: the desire for one’s faith to take over the world, believing it to be the only or best way, and the desire to simply maintain missional and doctrinal purity among a small group of like-minded people. While the latter approach feels more mature, and is probably perfect for some, neither have felt quite right to me. I desire something else: effort towards global unity by understanding and living the best of my own tradition while seeking to learn from and perhaps occasionally incorporate the wisdom and habits of others. This necessitates friendship with people from other traditions, which is probably the effort that really matters. I’ve tried to live that wisdom from Chris Heuertz and local friends.
I take encouragement from Richard Rohr, who seems to be on the same search:
‘If there is indeed one God of all the earth, then it is this one God who is breaking through in every age and culture. Monotheists should be the first to recognize that truth is one (Ephesians 4:4-6) and that God is “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). As Rumi said, “There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Different religions use different words to describe essentially the same change of consciousness that is necessary to see things in their fullness:
• Many writers in the early Christian era called the necessary perceptual shift away from the dualistic, judging, and separate self contemplation.
• Buddhists called it meditation, sitting, or practicing.
• Hesychastic Orthodoxy called it prayer of the heart.
• Sufi Islam called it ecstasy.
• Hasidic Judaism called it living from the divine spark within.
• Vedantic Hinduism spoke of it as non-dual knowing or simply breathing.
• Native religions found it in communion with nature itself or the Great Spirit through dance, ritual, and sexuality. Owen Barfield called this “original participation.”‘
I’ve focused here on bridging the gap between faith traditions since that’s on my mind right now, but I think friendship across other boundaries (racial, economic, cultural, sexual, etc.) is just as important.
The officer who choked Eric Garner to death on camera was not indicted by Staten Island grand jury just now. Expose yourself to this: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nypd-eric-garner-chokehold-death-not-indicted-article-1.2031841. Do not hide from it. Do not pretend it didn’t happen. Do not pretend the system is just and fair for all people. Imagine you are Eric. Imagine the harassment he faces every day, leading to his reaction when law enforcement starts engaging him after he just broke up a fight. He was doing the job police would have had to do had he not been there. They should have been thanking him. Listen to Eric’s words before he died. “I’m just minding my business, please just leave me alone.” Imagine the fear, the panic as you tell the officers you can’t breathe over and over and yet that arm stays there, firmly around your neck.
Now imagine you are the parent of a black son. Imagine all the training you have to give your son, teaching him to prioritize his safety over his dignity and humanity when interacting with law enforcement. Imagine how many times he’ll interact with law enforcement because of the color of his skin! Imagine the fear you feel, wondering each day whether he’ll even make it home. Imagine having to adjust to this reality, knowing it’s just the way things are here.
One more cop using excessive force walks free. With each non-indictment, each non-conviction, the message becomes stronger and stronger: if you are a police officer, it is legal to kill black people.
Are you okay with this being the status quo or will you work to change it?
So a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh on Wednesday. I saw the story, it made me really sad, I posted it on twitter. Later I saw this post on facebook from my friend Rob:
Come and mourn with me awhile…a tragedy far greater than Boston. A greater loss of life – the racism and classism that will cause this event to pass from our minds like a fleeting breeze – the reality that we are all complicit in and bear guilt for this event. We will not chase down the people responsible for this tragedy…this terrorist act…because they’re too well protected. They are us. They are protected behind arguments about “the way things are”, behind cheap statements about the “direct responsibility” of the indigenes managing the factory, behind worthless defenses about how “$37 a month is better than $0 a month”. 70 lives have been lost today because we want cheap t-shirts more than we want our brothers and sisters to thrive. Maranatha.
Damn, I thought; he’s right. I posted that story on twitter, it made me sad and angry, but that’s where I left it. Honestly, I might not have thought about it again if it weren’t for my friend calling us out on it: Racism. Classism. Ugh.
The situation became ridiculously poignant when I did lectio divina with Mark 8:34-38. Jesus asked the crowd:
“For what benefit is it for a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his life?”
Isn’t that precisely what we’ve done? By proxy, through our multinational corporations, we’ve gained the whole world. We can outsource our labor from literally anywhere on the planet. We put out an RFP and give the job to the lowest bidder. “Don’t tell me how you do it,” we tell them, “just get me these shirts at this price.” Why? So that we can pay less than $10 for a t-shirt and those corporations can still make a huge profit.
And in so doing, we have forfeited our life. Specifically, we have literally forfeited the lives of at least 340 Bangladeshi sisters and brothers, people who bear the image of their Creator just like I do. As Father Richard Rohr writes:
Every single person on earth is just as much children of God as we are. Objectively. Theologically. Eternally. Where else do we think they came from? Did some other god create them, except THE GOD? Their divine DNA is the same as ours. We deny our monotheism if we believe anything else.
Isn’t this exactly the kind of thing Jesus was talking about? We have forfeited what is most important in exchange for profit and cheap shirts.
Yes, my friend is right, we should mourn this. And we should not only mourn; let this mourning lead to action! Let us demand that the companies we give our money to get so diligent about auditing their supply chains that people become more important to them than the product itself and the profit it brings. Crazy, right? It’s crazy of me to think that companies could decide that people working in safe conditions and making a living wage is more important than the almighty dollar.
But isn’t that how the market works? Don’t those corporations always say, “we’re just giving people what they want”? I happen to think that most of the time that’s not actually true, that if people really knew the entirety of what they’re buying (like a collapsed factory in Bangladesh), they would realize they don’t actually want that. But I digress… if the companies claim to do what their customers want, then we, the customers, need to vote with our voice and our dollar. Let’s tell them we care about people first, before product. Wondering where to start?
- Free 2 Work rates companies on how well they’re addressing modern-day slavery. I’ve consulted their iPhone app before making purchases.
- Slavery Footprint interactively reveals how many slaves work for you.
- Made In a Free World produces “innovative campaigns, front line projects, consumer engagement tools, and marketable business solutions to get slavery out of our system.” They’ll help businesses move beyond compliance to engagement.
- Since not all companies have web pages dedicated to corporate responsibility, sometimes you just have to ask. Look up contact info and write a quick email asking how they ensure the folks that work for them are taken care of. I can usually tell right away from the response whether social responsibility is on their radar.
- For those who want to dig in a bit deeper, Patagonia has compiled a list of books and resources on corporate responsibility.
These are only starting points, focused on making better consumer choices. There are all sorts of creative ways to work for the flourishing of all people. I welcome your ideas in the comments.
As we mourn the passing of our neighbors and pray for the rescue of those still trapped in the rubble, I also pray that this death will bring about new life. May we be awakened (or re-awakened) to take responsibility for the impact of our choices and the way we use our voices. May we celebrate every small step we see anyone taking to be more considerate of their impact upon the world we share and the people who live on it. And may we not give in to despair, thinking that our efforts cannot possibly make a difference. They do.
A week ago Friday twenty year-old Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook elementary school in Newton, Connecticut with three guns and started shooting. He killed twenty children and seven other adults, including his mother, before killing himself.
I found it very difficult to function that day after hearing the news shortly after lunch. Since then I have enjoyed the time I’ve had with my daughters, so thankful they’re alive. And I should enjoy them. I have no guarantee of another day with them. If I were to stop enjoying them, only allowing sorrow, evil would win a small but significant victory. Nevertheless, I also need to feel the weight of what happened. I need to cry, to grieve, to groan, and to sit in silence and stillness. I may need to scream.